Ofsted and Ofqual are supposedly independent of Government. So why have their websites been moved to Gov UK?

Janet Downs's picture
Gov UK is the portal giving access to all government departments and some public bodies. But 13 of the listed non-ministerial departments such as Ofgem still maintain their own separate websites. These organisations keep their websites at arm’s length from the Government and haven’t compromised their neutrality.

Not so for Ofqual or Ofsted. These websites are now part of Gov UK. And Ofqual wasn’t happy. Warwick Mansell, writing in the Guardian, reveals how ex-schools minister Liz Truss asked for Ofqual to be exempt from the move but Francis Maude dismissed her application. Minutes of an Ofqual board meeting showed concern that Francis Maude's letter rejecting Liz Truss's request for exemption didn't 'accurately reflect Ofqual’s independence from Government'.

Ofsted, too, had initial concerns about content which might be published on the Ofsted section of Gov UK. The inspectorate later claimed to be satisfied that the move wouldn’t compromise Ofsted’s independence. However, the Guardian has found relations between Ofsted and the Department for Education (DfE) are now at ‘Amber-red’, the third of four coloured codes which describe how far an agency is ‘delivering the outcomes ministers and the public want’.

But Ofsted is not supposed to deliver what ministers want. It is supposed to do what it is legally mandated to do and no more. It is not there to carry out the wishes of individual ministers. This doesn’t augur well for the independence of Ofsted’s pronouncements on the Gov UK website.

Another organisation to be scooped up in the move to Gov UK is the Office of the Schools Adjudicator (OSA) which investigates complaints about schools accused of not sticking to the Schools Admission Code. When OSA had its own website it was possible to search complaints to find out how many were upheld in a given timescale and according to school type. This facility has now been removed. Readers are presented with a very short list of schools recently subjected to adjudication and a link to'our publications' (ie other schools which have been investigated). Readers would have to study each decision individually to discover whether the school was, say, an academy and whether the complaint was upheld. This makes it impossible to discover whether breaching the Schools Admission Code is more of a problem in academies and free schools than in other types of school.

This is hardly the transparency the Government says it promotes.

I asked OSA why it was no longer possible to frame searches. It replied that the DfE and the Government Digital Service (GDS) had set restrictions on OSA when the site moved to Gov UK. I asked what these restrictions were but was told to ask the DfE or GDS. I have done so.

CORRECTION 16 January 13.19. The article originally said that ex-school minister Liz Truss had turned down Ofqual's application for exemption. This was incorrect. Liz Truss had actually requested that Ofqual be exempt from moving to Gov UK. Her request was rejected by Francis Maude, Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General. Thanks to Warwick Mansell for pointing this out.

I also said, 'Minutes of an Ofqual board meeting showed concern that the move wouldn’t reflect Ofqual’s independence from Government.' What the Board actually said was they were concerned that Francis Maude's letter to the Board rejecting Liz Truss's request for exemption didn't 'accurately reflect Ofqual’s independence from Government'.

The article has now been corrected.
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Roger Titcombe's picture
Wed, 14/01/2015 - 14:51

Janet - This is timely in relation to John Mountford's recent post.


As I have posted on his thread, I strongly support John's long-standing campaign to take education out of party politics. These revelations from Warwick Mansell suggest that things are moving in the opposite direction.

The relationship between OfSTED and DfE is very important. In the early days of Academies they appeared to be far too close. It appears that the Chief Inspector could be asserting his independence. Quite right. He needs and deserves support. Regulators of state funded services should always be independent of government and answerable directly to parliament. Very few are. Most are on tight leads, as they also were under the last Labour government.

As I set out in my posts on this thread, Jeremy Hunt, the Secretary of State for Health has set an excellent precedent, for which he deserves praise and support. He made the CQC (the social care and patient safety regulator) independent of government.

This prevents government interference in the uncovering of poor care scandals in the NHS such as at the Mid Staffordshire and Morecambe Bay Trusts. The new statutory 'Duty of Candour' is also highly significant.

If applied to LAs, schools and Academy Chains it would make it a criminal offence for any individual acting independently or on behalf of an organisation to fail to disclose or to mislead in any way in response to any complaints or questions posed by anybody - be they parents, journalists, LAs, trade unions. local councillors or OfSTED.

Janet's many revelations suggest that not only is this needed, but that it would be effective. It is simply the legal duty to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth in response to any question posed by anybody.

It would also be a significant step on the way to securing the further depoliticisation of the state education system as John is right to argue for. There is a step by step plan for this set out in Sections 5.13 and C5.13 at the end of my book. You don't even have to buy my book to read it. You can use the 'turn the pages' function on the Amazon website.

If Tristram Hunt had any sense he would right now be putting together such proposals
for the Labour education manifesto.

David Barry's picture
Wed, 14/01/2015 - 15:05

Greater love hath no man, than he tells you how to read his book without buying it...

Given that OfSTED makes statements about the quality of education available from a provider it is simply crucial that it is seen to be, and is, independent. It is its role to provide information on which others, if need be, can act.

In that sense friction between OfSTED and the DfE is actually a good sign.

John Mountford's picture
Wed, 14/01/2015 - 22:10

Thank you, yet again Janet, for your tireless diligence in researching matters of great relevance to education in the run-up to a general election and bringing them to this forum.

I think you are right, David, I have been aware of a growing tension between Ofsted and the DfE through more recent media reports and it is indeed an encouraging sign. The quality of our democracy depends on the integrity and independence of organisations established to maintain standards, ensure equality of access to services, investigate any shortcomings or wrongdoing and to report their findings without fear of interference in favour of any vested interest.

It is this issue of 'vested interest', as is so often uncovered by Janet and Henry in particular, that keeps me so interested in the Local Schools Network. The present post exposes very worrying issues about the independence of key public bodies. It also raises the question, should ministers and others in government be allowed to lie with impunity? It shouldn't be difficult, as you point out, Roger: "It is simply the legal duty to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth in response to any question posed by anybody." It should lie at the heart of everything governments do, notwithstanding certain issues of 'national security'.

Another national scandal written about in these columns is the tendency of so many media commentators to accept lies peddled as facts by people in public office. In choosing to do so they discredit themselves and their profession at a time when our society needs their independence too.

It is little wonder that public confidence in the political process is at such a low ebb. When individual politicians, as in the case of Liz Truss, seek to restrict the independence of institutions set up to safeguard key public services, it is time for radical change. How refreshing would it be if Tristram Hunt heeded Roger's advice and took the first vitally important step towards depoliticising our education system?

agov's picture
Thu, 15/01/2015 - 11:06

I'll give gov.uk marks for being technically competent i.e. when you click something it actually works.

(Unlike some sites. Last time I made a comment on LSN it worked at first attempt, and received a response, but when I tried to comment on that I made 27 attempts spread over 13 days before giving up. We'll see what happens this time.)

The problem with gov.uk (in addition to that mentioned by Janet) is the difficulty in finding anything in particular. Even if you know something must be on the site it is often impossible to find it via the site's facilities. The best way to such things is to use Google and hope it comes up with the correct page hidden away somewhere within the gov.uk site.

It would have been far more sensible merely to have a government site that only linked to other departments and organisations.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 15/01/2015 - 11:22

Agov – sorry to hear about your problems commenting. We hope the problems have now been resolved.

The Gov UK website appears to be easy to use (just choose a link and click) but this is deceptive.

For example, if you want to find an Ofsted report, it would be logical to click on ‘Education and Learning’ on Gov UK’s home page. You are then presented with four options: apprenticeships, school admissions, schools and curriculum, and student finance. It would be logical to assume Ofsted reports would be under ‘schools and curriculum’. But the only reference to Ofsted under this heading is how to complain about a report. If you want to find an Ofsted report then you must click on ‘school admissions’. You can then choose ‘Find an Ofsted report’.

But this option only allows you to search for individual schools. It doesn’t allow you, for example, to find the Annual Ofsted Report. I had to Google this and was taken to Gov UK ‘news’ where I could access it.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 15/01/2015 - 11:30

agov - it would also have been cheaper for the taxpayer to fund a website which acted as a portal to other websites rather than attempt to incorporate other websites in one unwieldy and massive website.

Andy V's picture
Thu, 15/01/2015 - 18:05

I note also that every DFE department has migrated to gov.uk (including the office of the Children's Commissioner for England - even though the link at the top of Janet's thread indicates it hasn't. The address of the separate website is childrenscommissioner.gov.uk)

Also of note is that neither the CQC nor NHS England have migrated to Gov.uk:

cqc.org.uk / england.nhs.uk

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 16/01/2015 - 08:37

Andy - you're right the Office of the Children's Commissioner maintains a separate website. Ofsted, Ofqual and OSA do not - these organisations are now part of the large website Gov UK. This gives the perception they are no longer independent of the Government - editorial control could become compromised.

The Children's Commissioner's site is listed on Gov UK but clicking on the link takes readers to the separate (ie completely independent) website. In this case, Gov UK is just acting as a portal and nothing more. It's not true, therefore, that the Children's Commissioner has 'migrated' to Gov UK.

Jane Eades's picture
Tue, 20/01/2015 - 18:50

the same applies to the Charity Commission which has what appears to be an independent website but under the umbrella of the Government website.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 27/01/2015 - 15:27

Gov UK has now issued guidance for users of its Ofsted page - how to find stuff etc. The link is here. However, this doesn't detract from the fact that Gov UK is deciding how users should search for Ofsted info and the suspicion that Ofsted has lost editorial control (as has Ofqual, Charity Commission, Companies House, Office of the Schools Adjudicator, and all other previously independent sites which have migrated to Gov UK).

Andy V's picture
Tue, 27/01/2015 - 15:40

I share the concern regarding the extent of the substance to Ofsted's independence but wouldn't hang a hat on the issue of Gov.UK performing the standard function of a webmaster in terms of site maintenance and mapping (how to access/directions on how to find/search criteria). This has no connection to content. For example, I get NCTL publication via the Gov.UK alerts / postman but these are compiled or authored by Gov.UK

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 27/01/2015 - 15:49

Andy - I would be inclined to agree with you if it weren't for the fact that it's no longer possible to search for decisions according to different categories (eg free schools) on the OSA website. The way Gov UK has constructed the OSA site and the restrictions placed on OSA when it migrated mean it is not such a useful website as previously.

Andy V's picture
Tue, 27/01/2015 - 15:51

Frustrating I agree but that is about the structure of the site and not its content and/or authorship.

Andy V's picture
Tue, 27/01/2015 - 16:44

PS In relation to the difficulties you are having regarding the embedded filters for accessing areas and documents you were able to before the migration why not try submitting a request for assistance using https://www.gov.uk/contact/govuk

If nothing else their response may be revealing or constructive ...

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